The Gulag Archipelago Volume 3 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

I have finally finished reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s life-defining series. Reading all three books is a big achievement, and I feel incredibly pleased. All in all, the series exceeded two thousand pages. If reading the entire series is such a big achievement, can you imagine how big the achievement of writing it would have been? The series attempts to retell Soviet history since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. On top of that Solzhenitsyn never saw the entire copy of his book together because the control of the Soviet government was so stifling, and he needed to write everything in secret.

The last book in the series first delves into escape attempts from prison, then talks about life after prison as exiles and finally ends with what changed (and what did not) after Stalin’s death. The book ends on a sombre note, stating that despite Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s promise of change, nothing had actually changed in the Soviet system. After a brief interval of promise, even the prison system reverted to how it was under Stalin. It is a terribly tragic end to a series that already contained so much pain and suffering in its volumes. The tyrannical system only got more oppressive over the years Stalin ruled over the Soviet Union. A few brief years after Stalin’s death showed the promise of change, but it fizzled out soon afterwards. From my understanding of history, however, I think that the Soviet Union did become significantly more liberal after Stalin’s death. But this change did not deal with the fundamental problems of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn keeps pointing this out in the book and talking about how the state kept enshrouding itself in lies to give itself an outward shine while its contents rotted. The same system caused the Chernobyl disaster and culminated in the breakdown of the Soviet Union. So at best, liberalisation only papered over the deep cracks in the communist state.

The beginning of the book discusses the various escape attempts made by prisoners of the Gulag. Most escape attempts failed since security was tight and those caught were tortured or killed to dissuade others from following their footsteps. Life was not any easier for those who managed to run away. Without documents, they could not get any work, food or shelter. The Russian countryside is harsh, and it isn’t easy to find natural resources to sustain oneself. There would also be massive search operations that would begin after prisoners escaped. The general population was hostile towards runaway prisoners since they feared going into the Gulag themselves. The Soviet system was a system of terror, and it squeezed out all of the compassion from the ordinary soviet citizen. Only a state-fearing, cold and suspicious comrade was left. Prisoners could not get any help from such a person. Few people in Soviet history managed to escape, and they escaped by fleeing the country. If people remained in the country, they would eventually be captured, even if it occurred many years later.

The middle of the book discusses the system of exile after prison. I expected this section to be more positive and hopeful, but it was just pain and tears in the cold freedom outside rather than pain and tears in the cages of the Gulag. Exile guaranteed neither food nor shelter. The prisoners turned exiles and now had to work to earn money. But nobody would hire an exile since they were blacklisted and for fear of the government. Exiles, although supposedly free in society, were, in reality, at the mercy of local party politics. Usually, it was just an intermediate step between two long prison terms. However, Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience of exile did not correspond to these general trends. He was released during the early years of the liberalisation of Khrushchev and was sent to the Kazakhstan plains, where the weather was warmer than the cold Siberian tundra. The party did not enforce a nauseating control out there in the countryside far away from the urban centres, and Solzhenitsyn was able to spend a few quiet years here writing and teaching at the local school.

As usual, the book’s most interesting parts are the personal stories of Solzhenitsyn and his comrades. The broad history narrations can sometimes be dry and depressing but give an excellent overall picture of Russian society. In between all of this, there are sometimes lines, sometimes paragraphs and occasionally entire pages where the writing is extremely poetic. This literature elevates the series from a factual account to a literary masterpiece. On that note, I will leave you with a small section in book three that I enjoyed.

How often in my life have I observed that a man can safely sacrifice a great deal as long as he clings to the essential. The play which I had been carrying within me even in the Special Camp, at hard labor, I refused to sacrifice—and I triumphed. For a whole week they all worked nights—and they got used to my empty desk. Even the chairman just looked the other way when he passed me in the corridor.

If you want to read my thoughts on books 1 and book 2 of this series, please check out the links below:

The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2

The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1

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